Review: Hope's 'The Wiz' is theater at its finest

American author L. Frank Baum’s children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” has been adapted practically countless times since its publication in 1900, and for good reason. It’s a timeless allegorical quest tale of self discovery — about trusting what’s real beyond false facades, believing we already possess that which we seek, and realizing that when we know ourselves, we’re always at home, anywhere.

It is perhaps best known for the wildly popular celebrated 1939 MGM technicolor film starring Judy Garland, though any Michael Jackson fan over 40 will undoubtedly remember The Wiz, the 1978 film with music produced by Quincy Jones based on an award-winning Broadway musical with inspired music and lyrics by the hugely talented Charlie Smalls. The film was pretty terrible despite an all-star cast including Diana Ross and Richard Pryor in addition to Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow; however, the stage musical is perhaps the best adaptation of the original story there is, and deserves far more play than it has received.

Thankfully, Hope Summer Repertory Theatre has brought the now classic piece of African American theater to West Michigan in a production that more than fulfills the promise of this wonderful piece of literature made more delightful with the perfect storm of innovative staging and design, killer performances, and a book and music that easily improves upon every iteration of the tale nearly every American knows if not loves.

It’s significant, too, that HSRT’s 47th season has kicked off with shows that genuinely celebrate diversity and put people of color front and center. Though the Holland audiences remain remarkably whitewashed, this is a terrific step in the right direction for which they deserve to be commended.

And “The Wiz” is an astonishing achievement. Directed with infinite style and grace by Marcus Denard Johnson, it tells, of course, the story of Dorothy and her little dog Toto, exiled from Kansas to kill wicked witches in the land of Oz, and to find her way home, but only by first befriending a scarecrow in need of a brain, a tin man who doesn’t have a heart, and a cowardly lion desperate for some courage. Together they discover who they truly are and that they don’t need someone outside themselves to give them what they’re after as they ease on down the yellow brick road and encounter brightly colored munchkins, poppies, flying monkeys, and all kinds of wickedly fun characters who put a little stank on the original tale that vastly improves it.

So much of what makes “The Wiz” distinctive is its sound, and Music Director Alex Thompson makes the funky, soulful, bluesy score timeless and not at all stuck in the 1970s with a rich, full sound from a fabulous 14-piece live orchestra, and brings the singers to tremendous heights.

The dancing, too, is excellent, and choreographer Chaz Sanders, who also gives a terrific performance as the Scarecrow, plays to the strengths of the dancers on stage creating impressive numbers inspired by classical ballet as well as jazz and hip hop to create movement rooted in character that show they “sure know how to get down” as one witch says to another.

Sometimes the movement doubles as staging and set on an otherwise effectively understated yet interesting set from Sandy Yaklin. For example, unitard-clad dancers create the scene-shifting inciting incident of the tornado with fouette turns and grand jetes combined with silks suspended from above as well as other fabrics combined with Alan Piotrowicz’s clever lighting design. And Andrew Vincent’s spectacular costumes are a sensual feast.

Though some performers are stronger dancers than singers and vice versa, there isn’t a single performance here that isn’t positively inspired. Madeline Jones is a commanding Aunt Em/Wiz; Rachel Davenport is a fierce Addaperle; and Jasmine Walker is boldly versatile and wonderful as Eveillene/Glinda. Chaz Sanders’ Scarecrow is delightfully nimble; Brandon A. Wright’s Tin Man is a scream; and Marcus Martin’s Lion is utterly lovable, terrifying, and surprisingly complex. They play together with immense joy and deliver a powerful message through their artistry. In the Wiz’s words: “we have to embrace what we fear, and know in our hearts the things we hold as sacred are sometimes holding us down.”

Powerful and resonant, indeed. It comes through not just in the lines, lyrics, and the language of movement. It’s transmitted wordlessly, the culmination of all the talent working together on stage, and emerges in the final number, “Home,” directly through Maya Lagerstam’s incomparable Dorothy, whose voice reverberates throughout the theatre, shaking all the audience members to their core. When she sings, it’s nothing less than spirit moving directly through her and into those in her presence, in turn, moving them—if not to tears then at the very least to their feet.

This is theater at its finest. Pushing boundaries in the best of ways and making the audience see if not feel things anew, whether they realize it or not.

The Wiz
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
June 22-August 10